When Blak and Blu was released by Warner Bros in 2012, Gary Clark Jr became an instant sensation. Critics raved that the talented young blues guitarist and singer could be a revivalist for the genre. Clark is much more than that. If you’ve heard Blak and Blu, you know how the 31-year-old is able to take the blues, infuse it with his raucous guitar playing and easy, super-smooth style of singing, and elevate it to a level rarely heard.
Soon, Blak and Blu and the several gigs where the young Texan wowed audiences got him calls. Important ones — such as the one from Eric Clapton who invited him to play at his Crossroads Guitar Festival and is believed to have said that listening to Clark made him want to play the blues again. High praise came from others too: such as Buddy Guy who thinks Clark is the new saviour for the blues. And from bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Foo Fighters with whom he has also played.
Also watch: Gary Clark Jr.: Rock in Rio USA 2015
So, three years after I first heard Clark, on Blak and Blu, on a few live recordings, and in the Jon Favreau film, Chef, I couldn’t wait to listen to his second studio album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, which came out last month. I was in for a surprise.
On Blak and Blu and the other live tracks, Clark’s music is distinctive for its rawness: his guitar influences range from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan; but also, a bit oddly for a bluesman, the power chords and distorted notes of grunge bands — in fact, in a long interview to Relix magazine, Clark mentions Nirvana as one of his influences.
On Blak and Blu, the stand-out song is When My Train Pulls In, which, I think, showcases the bluesman’s oeuvre the best. His music, even on a studio album, is like listening to a live band. Or at least that’s what I thought. Till now.
On The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the first thing that strikes you is the restraint. For the 13 songs, recorded not in an LA studio but in his hometown in Texas, Clark dropped his band and played every instrument on his own – diving deep into the music and making an album that is more like a personal project.
The searing guitar licks do show up on the new album but it also demonstrates how deep and mature a musician the young bluesman is. Genres are hopped with ease: from R&B (on Our Love) to gospel (on Church) to funk (on Can’t Sleep). His guitar is still the biggest magnet of his music but he also shows how comfortable and versatile his vocals can be.
The a capella opening to the first song, The Healing, is deceptive — it soon segues into a high-energy scorcher. And by the time you’re halfway into the album, and listening to Hold On, a song that is clearly a response to the resurgent racism in many parts of America, you are completely hooked to Clark. Again.
The other album that made its way to my playlist last fortnight was Craig Finn’s (frontman of The Hold Steady) new solo album, Faith in the Future. The Hold Steady and Finn make songs that tell stories – dark, sad and odd ones – about characters that inhabit the urban underbelly. Their songs are tales about people that are treated unfortunately by circumstances.
The 10 songs on the new Finn album aren’t different. His booze-soaked bar-ready vocals; the bit of reverb in the music; and the stories that aren’t going to make you happy. If you fancy a walk into the dark side, it’s a perfect album to play. I like The Hold Steady, and their 2005 album, Separation Sunday, creeps back into my playlist often. Craig’s storytelling is compelling though the stories are often disturbing. An album to play when you’re down and intend to stay there for a while. What? That doesn’t happen to you?
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
There are two tracks on Miles Davis’s 1970 album, A Tribute to Jack Johnson: Right Off and Yesternow; the first is nearly 27 minutes long and the second nearly 26.
Originally intended as a soundtrack for a documentary on the legendary black boxer, it’s probably the finest piece of electric jazz I’ve heard. Yes, finer than Bitches Brew. Oh, and who else besides the ace trumpeter is playing? Well, there’s John McLaughlin (on guitar), Herbie Hancock (on organ), and Billy Cobham (on drums). Want more? There’s also Dave Holland (on electric bass), Jack DeJohnette (on drums) and Chick Corea (on piano). Legends. Just like the album. Get a drink. Put it on. And switch off the lights.
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The Pixies are one of the pioneers of indie rock. And when you listen to the band, everything pales before their main man, Black Francis
I haven’t heard this band in such a long time,” said the voluble lady from Tampa, Florida, giddily, “that I’d nearly forgotten how they sound.”
We were taking a short breather outside the theatre that warm Tuesday night while the Pixies were still playing – they had just finished Isla de Encanta – Pixies and I’d stepped out for a bathroom break (a couple of Brooklyn Lagers can do that to you in your middle age) and enroute to my seat I’d bumped into a couple going out for a smoke and got talking.
The Pixies were playing at New York’s Beacon Theater – their first show in the city in years – and giddy is one word to describe the crowd. The other could be nostalgic.
Isla de Encanta is almost entirely sung in Spanish and it’s a short (under two minutes) song that has a pulsating bass line delivered by Paz Lechantin, the band’s newish replacement for ex-bassist Kim Deal, fast-paced percussion from David Lovering and, of course, searing lead from Joey Santiago’s guitar.
Watch: Pixies – Full Performance
Those three things matter a lot but when you listen to the Pixies everything pales before their main man, leader, singer and bulwark of the band, Black Francis (aka Frank Black; birth-name Charles Thompson).
Francis turned 50 a month before the Beacon Concert and he looks it. If you didn’t know who he was and bumped into him anywhere other than see him on stage, in his baggy dad pants and shaven headed portly self, he could be a rush-hour executive holding a Styrofoam coffee cup negotiating the Manhattan grid to get to his nine-to-five job. On stage, he’s rock’s venerated god.
The Pixies were formed by Francis, Santiago, Deal and Lovering in the mid-1980s in Boston and it wouldn’t be incorrect to describe them as one of the pioneers of what has come to be known as alternative/indie rock.
Their limited commercial success is greatly overshadowed by their huge and profound influence on legions of rock bands, including venerable names such as Nirvana and Radiohead.
The Pixies broke up in 1993 but they re-formed in 2004. Then, sans Kim Deal, the band released a new album of fresh songs in 2013, Indie Cindy. If you weigh the impact that this band has had on rock music since the mid-eighties, the number of records (not counting the live albums, compilations and EPs) that they’ve released looks meagre – five.
At the gig that I went to, the setlist covered songs from all those albums, 1988’s debut album, Surfer Rosa to 2013’s Indie Cindy. And they did it matter-of-factly. Francis isn’t big when it comes to interacting with the audience but that didn’t seem to bother anyone.
They played 35 songs, including three encores, on that Tuesday night, getting on a darkened stage to start with, interestingly, a cover of In Heaven, a song from David Lynch’s surrealist film Eraserhead before doing the first from their own catalogue, Ana, from the Bossanova album. They then moved on to Pixies – Wave of Mutilation, Brick is Red, Break My Body, and Nimrod’s Son.
Most Pixies’ songs are short. They are like espresso shots of music that draw from genres that span a wide range and defy classification. Jagged edgy guitar work combines with melodic vocals and thudding basslines.
Francis (and occasionally Paz) sings about subjects that are often bizarre and always as wide-ranging as the music itself: incest, aliens, violence are just a few things that you may encounter in a Pixies song but there is more.
By the time the band was into Indie Cindy, the seventh song of the night, the audience in the art-deco theatre, already on its feet, went totally wild – in sharp contrast to the three men and a woman up on stage who seemed engrossed in making music as if they were playing for themselves.
That didn’t bother anyone and when, after playing their last two songs, Hey (Hey/Been trying to meet you/ Hey/ Must be a devil between us/ Or whores in my head/ Whores at my door/ Whores in my bed/ But hey/ Where have you been?) and Planet of Sound, the crowd screamed for more, the band came back to deliver Greens and Blues (off their newest album), the signature Where is My Mind? (off Surfer Rosa) and Vamos (with its English-Spanish lyrics).
Two days later, I was getting lost in the stacks of books (there are 18 miles of them) at New York’s Strand Bookstore when I came across The Good Inn, Black Francis’s debut novel (in collaboration with Pixies biographer Josh Frank, and artist Steven Appleby).
Set in France, the book’s protagonist is Soldier Boy who, recently discharged from the army, makes his adventurous way through France, replete with sex, art and the surreal. It’s in part a screenplay, in part a narrative, and in part a graphic novel. Also, it’s quirky as hell. Just as the Pixies’ music is.
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Upon hearing from my friend Hemant that he was listening to a lot of Walter Trout, I rummaged in my hard drives and CD shelves to bring out my old copies of albums by one of the most fret-searing blues guitarists that I’ve heard. I hadn’t heard Trout in a long time. And what came up first was the two-disc live album from 2000, Live Trout, on which Trout plays with his band The Free Radicals (the band’s now just called Walter Trout). Read more
It’s always nice to meet someone who shares your tastes in music. You exchange notes, swap a CD or two or a few zipped files of new albums, maybe just exchange tips and leads on what blogs to follow, which bands to watch, or even bitch about musicians whom most others think are fabulous but you just want to avoid like the plague. But as you grow older and have less time to meet too many new people and often are finickier about who you meet, such encounters become rare. So I was pleasantly surprised last month when I met a new colleague in Mumbai who was not only as much of a podcast addict as I am but also a great fan of the NPR podcasts of which he is also an obsessive listener. Of course, although his taste in music and mine do intersect somewhere, he’s more loyal to latin jazz, while my interests veer more towards rock. Still, when we met for a drink recently in his town, we forged an instant bond about widgets, apps and downloads from the NPR website and of how our commutes have become so much more bearable. Read more
We’re almost into the second week of the New Year but I’m still exploring a bunch of albums that came out last year, many of which I hadn’t had the time to listen to. Actually January is a good time to carry forward some of the music of the previous year because it is rare for too many new albums to be released during the first month of any year. People—everyone, from critics, bloggers, bands, record companies to fans—are too busy recovering from the holidays to do anything else. Read more
Sometimes when you’re searching for new musicians you need look no further than the record label that publishes their work. Sub Pop is one such label. Set up in Seattle 25 years ago, it was a independent label that made a name when it signed up the vanguards of the Seattle grunge rock movement—Nirvana, of course, but also Mudhoney and Soundgarden. Those three bands may be legendary in rock music’s history but the list of great bands that have worked with the label is impressive—Sonic Youth, Death Cab for Cutie, White Stripes, Modest Mouse, The Shins, Built to Spill, Foals, The Smashing Pumpkins…. It’s a long list of stellar musicians and bands. So, although Sub Pop is not really a kosher indie label any longer (Warner Brothers has a biggish stake in it now), many people trust the label so much as to blindly pick up albums by new artists that it signs on. I tried Wolf Parade, Vetiver, CSS (Cansei der Ser Sexy, a very agreeable Brazilian band) and many other bands that I’ve become a fan of now simply because they have worked with Sub Pop. Read more
Last month after we’d heard the news of British singer Amy Winehouse’s untimely death at 27, the media quickly zeroed in on that particular number, citing the names of other rock and pop stars who had lost their lives when they were as old as Winehouse was when her body was found at her London residence. Winehouse was probably the most talented of the current crop of British women singers many of whom are, like she was, at the forefront of a revival of soul music. Read more
Rick Grech’s violin solo on Sea of Joy is probably the reason why I keep going back to Blind Faith, the eponymous and only album by the 1968 British super-group that Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Grech formed. I am not sure whether they lasted together for a full year but that album has so many of my memories attached to it that I can’t even begin to tell you. I must have been just a bit older than the pubescent girl on that risqué and controversial album cover when I first heard Blind Faith. It came out in 1969. I must’ve heard it in 1973 in my friend Sujoy’s mezzanine den where we used to meet for our nefarious activities. It was a vinyl that we played on a rather robust record player that he had – believe me, it took all kinds of mishandling, including some that I would be embarrassed as hell to tell you.
Last week, after a couple of quick listens to Radiohead’s The King of Limbs, I had gushed about that album. Now, after several more unhurried listens, I am happy to report that – despite the negative blah by some critics (no guitar riffs; nothing new; very short…. yada yada…) – it is a fine album that I’m going to keep going back to. In fact, what I did after the second, third and fourth helpings of the 37-minute TKOL was revisit the band’s back catalogue and get lost for a couple of days in all of their albums, particularly Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows, all of which came out in the 2000s, but also the super ones that the band released in the 1990s – Pablo Honey, The Bends and OK Computer. That’s what set me thinking about the Nineties. I know, I know, it’s been a while since that decade passed, but have you stopped to think how much great music was produced in those ten years? Read more
My recent visits to Kolkata, the hometown I left long before they changed its name from Calcutta, haven’t really been pleasant ones, partly because of the none-too-happy personal reasons for which I have to visit the city. But also because the city I go back to, albeit infrequently, is just not the place that used to be home for nearly the first 30 years of my life – and I’m not referring to its re-christening alone. I have fond memories of Calcutta and many of the reasons why I like the kind of music that I do has to do with being exposed – through friends, bands and simply because of easy availability – to a heck of a lot of great music while I was growing up in that city. Read more